LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday defended his decision to launch the $27 million TestNebraska initiative without making its testing available to people with disabilities.
Speaking during a press briefing about the coronavirus, the governor did not dispute charges raised by disability advocates and State Sens. Carol Blood of Bellevue and Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha that the state testing program poses numerous barriers for people with disabilities.
In a Zoom press conference, they listed problems with TestNebraska that range from an assessment website that is not friendly for people with visual and hearing difficulties to testing sites that require people to arrive in cars.
But Ricketts said that the initiative, which was announced at the end of April, is still getting the bugs worked out to serve “the regular customers, so to speak,” and that tests are available to people with disabilities through other avenues.
“We’ve been working on getting the system up and running,” he said. “For folks who don’t want to be tested through TestNebraska, there are other options.”
Ricketts said the goal of TestNebraska was to increase testing in the state, even though he said “we knew it wasn’t going to be a solution that worked for everybody.”
TestNebraska has been controversial ever since the state signed a no-bid contract with four high-tech Utah companies to set up the program. The initiative has been criticized previously for not being available to people without Internet access or an email address.
To get tested through TestNebraska, people have to fill out an online assessment. If they fall into a priority category, they can get an appointment for testing at one of the mobile testing sites. People given priority include those showing symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus; health care workers; first responders; corrections officers; meatpacking plant workers; and those age 65 or older.
Don Dew, a Nebraskan who heads up the Disabilities Resource Center of Siouxland, said he has talked with many people who have done the assessment and been told that they qualify for a test but cannot get tested because they don’t drive or can’t get out of the house.
Kathy Hoell, who directs the Nebraska Statewide Independent Living Council, said public transportation is not an option because it will not take people through a testing site. Using specialized transportation could expose other people to the coronavirus, and many of the vans used lack windows in the back area that open so health care workers can reach the person they are supposed to be testing.
Some people have trouble doing the assessment or calling the TestNebraska help center because the website is not set up to accommodate people with disabilities, said Shawn Wilbur, who represents blind and deaf veterans.
“We’re being left out,” Hoell said.
Alternatives to TestNebraska can be difficult as well, the advocates said. Hospitals and clinics don’t always offer testing outside of larger communities, Dew said. Some alternatives are drive-thru tests as well. The qualifications for testing also can be higher outside of TestNebraska.
Dea Henkle, a Lincoln woman with a disability, argued that TestNebraska should be accessible because it is being paid for with federal and state dollars. She and others said Nebraska risks a lawsuit by not making the program available to people with disabilities, who often are among the most at risk from the coronavirus.
Among other topics raised at the briefing:
Child care grants
- . Stephanie Beasley, the child and family services director within the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, announced plans to use $20 million of federal coronavirus aid to support child care services in the state. The money is coming in through the existing child care and development block grant program.
Beasley said about 16% of family home day cares and child care centers closed because of problems related to the virus. Those problems included restrictions on the number of children in care and parents pulling children from care because the parents were at home.
The state will offer grants to help child care providers that have stayed open but are struggling financially, as well as incentives for providers to reopen. Some money will support a statewide referral website to help parents find care and some will go into after-school and summer programs for school-age children.
- . Although the protests following the death of George Floyd exceed the state’s social distancing restrictions, Ricketts said concerns about spreading the coronavirus had to be weighed against free speech concerns.
He said the decision was made to support free speech. However, he encouraged participants to wear masks to reduce the chances of transmitting the virus, advice that many protesters have followed.
The governor plans only two briefings this week instead of daily appearances. The next one will be on Thursday.